You Can Check Out Anytime You Want

by Nancy Bestor

When our children were growing up, they loved staying in hotels of all shapes and sizes. They were quite enamored with hotel features and amenities. They loved sitting in fancy chairs in the lobby. They loved taking turns pressing the elevator buttons. They loved swimming in hotel pools. They loved the mini shampoo bottles and the ice machines down the hall.

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I get it. Hotel stays sometimes feel like an escape from regular life. But I can safely say that at 49 years old, I don’t love every hotel I stay in. I’m not so excited by elevator buttons, or swimming pools, or mini shampoo bottles and ice machines. I’ll be honest, I’m a little more discriminating these days. I like quality accommodations. I value sheets with high thread counts and comfortable mattresses. I like roomy bathrooms filled with plenty of soft towels and good toilet paper.

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But if I could bend your ear (or your eyeballs) and tell you about my ultimate dream hotel, it has all of the things I mentioned above (particularly the good toilet paper), as well as some kind of old world charm and/or small family feel to it. I like a little history, but at the same time, I like modern conveniences. I like hotels that are run by families, or people who feel like family. I’m not interested in high-rise structures with hundreds of rooms, but rather prefer an old building that has been a hotel for a hundred years, or a home or unusual structure that has been converted to a hotel. We’ve stayed in a lot of hotels over the years and we’ve been fortunate to find more than a few unique ones along the way, that also offer many of the amenities I prize.

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In New Zealand for example, we stayed at two different “pub” hotels, where rooms were either next door to, or above, a cozy local drinking establishment. Although I worried about the potential noise, in both cases, it was just as quiet as a typical hotel room. In Bangkok, we stayed at Siamotif, a small, family run hotel that had been converted from the owner’s original family home. In Shanghai, we stayed at the Astor House Hotel, which opened in 1846 and boasts a past guest list that includes Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Ulysses S. Grant. And in Memphis, we watched the ducks parade in each morning of our stay from their penthouse suite on the hotel roof to the fountain in the lobby at the Peabody Hotel. Now I’ll admit, they didn’t all have sheets with high thread count, but I was willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort for a little history and a lot of charm.

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Maybe the hotel offers guests a lovely local drink when they check in. Perhaps they provide snacks and/or drinks at happy hour every day. Maybe they leave handwritten notes from housekeeping making sure guests have everything they need. These are the little extras that excite me.

The cities of the world offer an abundance of hotels that travelers can choose to stay in when visiting. My ideal hotel certainly isn’t right for everyone, but it’s exactly what I aspire to find when hotel shopping. Here are a few of the things Bob and I do when looking for a hotel. We Google “unique hotels” for our destination and then spend lots of time (arguably too much) reading reviews from other hotel guests. We look at as many pictures (those published by the hotel and by guests as well) as we can find. And then, when we book, we try and make sure our booking can be canceled in the event we find something better.

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Of course we are not always successful. Sometimes our number one choice is too expensive. Sometimes there are no vacancies. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But that just makes the times we do find them that much more special.

I Want to Ride My Bicycle – I Want to Ride My Bike

by Nancy Bestor

DSC04401Now that both our children are away at college, I’ve been on a search for “my thing”. I need a hobby (that isn’t reading on the couch) that I can become passionate about. I’ve started playing the guitar, am trying to hike and walk more often with girlfriends, and have also increased my road bike riding. Thus when Bob suggested we rent bikes in Queenstown, New Zealand, and go for a 30+ mile ride, I was an enthusiastic yes. And when we picked up a map from the bike rental agency, and I saw that the ride we would be doing was considered “moderate,” I gave two enthusiastic thumbs up. Little did I know that New Zealand’s idea of moderate and my idea of moderate are two very different things.

Our plan of attack was to bike to Arrowtown for lunch, then roll on to the town of Gibbston, where we would finish at a winery with a glass or two of Central Otago’s finest varietals before the bike rental shuttle picked us up and drove us back into Queenstown. Actually, we had originally planned to ride out to Arrowtown and Gibbston, and then back to Queenstown, but Lisa, the incredibly kind, knowledgeable and reasonable woman at the rental agency, talked us out of that, and convinced us that our ride would be long enough if we took a shuttle back. Thanks to Lisa, Bob and I will celebrate another wedding anniversary.

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In the beginning, on our mountain bikes, our ride was flat and lovely. We started out going around the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu, on an extremely well signed and well-maintained gravel bike path. Then we rode along a river, also lovely and fairly easy. We had the bike trail almost to ourselves and to begin with, it was nothing but lovely vistas of rolling hills and snow capped peaks and pedestrian/biker-only bridges that span some of the bluest rivers in the world. I began to feel like bike riding might really be “my thing”. I started picturing myself riding Cycle Oregon, and/or choosing a century ride in a beautiful location. But that’s where the easy ended and (in my humble opinion) we skipped right over the moderate category and into difficult. There were many uphill climbs and switchbacks—damn those switchbacks. I got off my bike twice because I just didn’t think I could keep pedaling fast enough to stay upright. This is when I started thinking that maybe sewing or quilting might be a better “thing” for me.

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The views were still lovely, but I was concentrating pretty darn hard on keeping my legs going in a circular motion. I did indeed make it to the top of Thompson’s Hill, which was the end of the hard part. From there we had about six more miles to make it to Arrowtown, a very cute gold-rush town with many original buildings. We ate lunch there, and quaffed a beer to replenish the thousands and thousands of calories we had burned off in the three hours so far. The lunch and beers were delicious.

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After lunch, we hopped back on our bikes, energy renewed for the final eight-mile ride to Gibbston. Along the way we rode over the Kawarau Bridge, “world home” of bungee jumping. Many, many brave souls were waiting their turn to bungee 43 meters to the river below. We stopped to catch our breath watch a few bungee jumps. The music was pumping, people were cheering, and one poor young woman was sobbing as she gathered the courage to jump off the bungee ledge. (The mother in me really wanted to go over to her and tell her that perhaps if she was crying so hard about this upcoming jump, she really shouldn’t do it, but I kept my mouth shut.) I can say, without a doubt, that bungee jumping will never be “my thing.”

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Our bike ride ended at the Gibbston Valley Winery. We bought a flight of wines with a cheese pairing and sat our weary butts down on a hard bench and relished in our accomplishment. Soon our van driver arrived, and it just so happened to be Lisa, the same woman who convinced us to arrange a shuttle. I bowed down to her in gratitude.

So I guess my take away from this adventure was that century rides might not be my thing. And bungee jumping is definitely not my thing either. But spirited bike rides that end in wine and cheese pairings???…….now we may be getting somewhere.

Notes:

  • Our day-long bike rental, including the shuttle pickup, cost $127 in US dollars for both of us. I don’t know how much of that was the shuttle pickup, but in my opinion, it was priceless.
  • If you’re crazy brave enough to bungee jump at the Kawarau Bridge, the cost for one jump is about $140 (US).
  • Arrowtown looks like a cute town to browse in. My legs just didn’t have the energy to do so. We ate at the Fork & Tap, in a charming historic building. We also got delicious sticky buns (which came highly recommended) at Provisions.
  • Our waitress at the Fork & Tap had never before heard of Root Beer.

Love Makes the SeeSaws Go Up and Down

by Nancy Bestor

So there I was, sitting on a curb putting a band aid on my sweaty, grimy toe. My feet, although comfortable in my Keen sandals, were tired after many days and many miles of walking the streets of Bangkok. Bob was chilling in the shade next to me, also in Keens. Before I could finish my first aide, a beautifully dressed couple approached, and asked if Bob and I would be willing to pose with them in their wedding pictures. That’s right, Bob and I are sweating in shorts and t-shirts—and don’t forget our Keen sandals—and a stunning couple in full dress and makeup want us to appear in their wedding photos. Without missing a beat, we said yes.

bangkokTheir two professional photographers took at least a dozen shots of the two couples next to each other. He even had us kiss our spouses (or soon to be spouses) for a pose. We didn’t do much talking—as professional models, we took our job seriously—but the wedding couple did ask if we were from America, and told us that they had once been to San Francisco. Before our shoot was finished, we did get a photo on our camera for our memory book too. As we went on our way, the bride and groom thanked us profusely. It’s hard to believe, but they were grateful to have two sweaty Americans in their wedding photos.

And that, in a nutshell is what I love about Thailand. Yes, I love the food—boy do I love the food. And I love its sites, smells and sounds too. But without a doubt, it’s the kind, friendly Thai people that I love most.

We were in Thailand for five days, on a roundabout journey to New Zealand. This being a short visit, we decided to stick to Bangkok, and take our time exploring all its wonders. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which required a little extra work to get to and from, but proved to be a highlight of our stay. The Siamotif Hotel is in an old wooden house and is its owner’s original family home. It is located in Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal, which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thai standards, the Siamotif is stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and includes a full and delicious breakfast each morning. It was perfect.bangkok 2But again, the best thing about our hotel was its people. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members ourselves, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required that we take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferry boats and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm. We were all sad to say goodbye to each other when we departed. But this experience was not unique to this Thailand trip. The last time we visited, with our young children, Thai people fawned over them and hotel proprietors were in tears when saying goodbye.

On this trip, at the bustling Chatuchak Market, I fell down. I didn’t see a large crack in the pavement and tripped. Before I could even try to get up by myself, three Thai people were kneeling down beside me, checking to make sure I was okay, and giving me their hands to help me up. Food stall workers were delighted to have foreigners eating at their shops, and enthusiastically helped us try to figure out what they were selling. People riding the local buses pointed and told us where to get off when we were going to a floating market. And Thai children were fascinated with us, smiling, waving, and high-fiving us as we walked by.bangkok 3These are the experiences that we will remember. People being kind and friendly with one another. Because love really does make the world go round.

We Were Never Being Boring

by Nancy Bestor

I don’t think of myself as a boring person, per se. It’s true I usually choose solid colored clothing over wild prints. It’s also true that a comfortable couch and a stack of good books sounds like my idea of a great weekend. But that doesn’t constitute boring. That means sensible and smart. (Am I right?)

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Then Bob and I rented a car on the South Island of New Zealand. When we picked it up, I thought it was a perfect sized, gas conscious vehicle. Sensible and smart, just like me. But then we got on the open roads of the island, and I started to see “fun” car rentals. And once I saw one, I saw thousands. (Sometimes an exaggeration really is needed in a first person travel story.)

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There were vans that looked like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, there were Road Runner cars, there were Beastie Boys vans, and more.

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Somehow, we missed the memo about how the cool kids rent cool cars in New Zealand. There was even (ahem) a Bill Cosby car. Someone needs to let that car rental agency know that Bill Cosby is no longer a positive image to portray on a vehicle.

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Yes, my little silver rental car got good gas mileage. And it had plenty of room for our needs. But I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on something.

And don’t get me started on the mail boxes. My mailbox in Ashland, Oregon, is one in a stack of simple metal rectangular boxes.

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No more, no less. But we saw mailboxes designed like beer kegs, snow skiis, sharks, and birdhouses, to name just a few. I think it would be way more fun to pick up my bills everyday (because let’s be honest, that’s all I get in the mail anymore) if I could say hello to Snoopy while doing it.

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And finally the bras. Yes, the bras. I won’t go into detail about the style and color of my bras. But, needless to say, they don’t look anything like the bras we saw tied to the fence post in the Cardrona Valley. The Cardrona Bra Fence is, you guessed it, a fence with hundreds of bras hanging from it.

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Legend has it that around the year 2000, four women hung their bras after a very fun evening at the Cardrona Hotel. However it began, it quickly caught on, and women began hanging their bras in solidarity.

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In 2006, authorities removed the bras, saying the fence was “a potential hazard” to drivers, but the bras kept coming back. And they remain today.

I may not be boring, maybe, but let’s just say that New Zealand is wayyyyyy more interesting than me.

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

by Bob Bestor

breathalizer Guilt is a powerful force. So is anxiety. Usually both feelings are pointless and unwarranted. But when you are in a foreign country (New Zealand in this case), and out of sorts from both jet lag and driving on the wrong side of the road, you might be more susceptible to them. Particularly when you are approaching Uniformed Law Enforcement Officers and their sobriety checkpoint roadblock. As pointless as guilt and anxiety may be, they are there. They must be vestiges of my barely-catholic upbringing.

So even though I was stone-cold sober, it was sweaty palms time. I knew I had not been drinking, but my sweaty palms didn’t seem to care. But when it got to be my turn, it was no problem and even quite civil. The police officer simply asked me to count to five into his hand-held breathalyzer. The results were displayed instantly (“no alcohol”) and in my case we were on our way in about thirty seconds with a “Have a nice day.” Even taking photos of the event was no problem. I’d guess it wouldn’t have been quite so civil had I failed.

Fortunately we were already familiar with New Zealand’s sobriety checkpoints. On our first day, while on foot, we had seen a checkpoint at 4pm on a weekday afternoon just outside of downtown Christchurch. We thought it was an odd time and place. But then again, why not? It certainly is a good way to advertise to the general public that the cops are on the lookout. It was also the only time we came upon a checkpoint when we were not 100% sober!

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New Zealand seems to take what they call “drink driving” seriously. In addition to sobriety checkpoints, “Know Your Limit” posters are ubiquitous in bars and restaurants. The poster features two young and hip New Zealanders, a man and a woman, and goes into quite a bit of detail on the effects of various alcoholic drinks and offers a rule of thumb of three drinks over two hours for men and two drinks over two hours for women.

We went through three checkpoints and saw a couple others during our two-week visit to the south island of New Zealand. It was enough to make us switch drivers after our friendly visit to the St. Clair Bowling Club in Dunedin. I was more like “three over one and a half” and although I was our primary driver, we figured it was better to get in trouble with the rental car company than with New Zealand’s finest – and to not deal with the catholic guilt either.

Travel Essentials’ 2016 Travel Photo Contest is Here!

It’s that time of year again! Travel Essentials is currently accepting photo entries for our 16th annual Travel Photo Contest! We love this time of year, finding exciting and beautiful shots from around the world in our inbox every morning. It’s fun for us to see the world through all of your eyes – and we can’t wait to share these wonderful pictures with you in September!

We have some amazing prizes for you this year. Our grand prize is a set of Briggs & Riley Luggage that includes a black 21″ Transcend International Wide-Body Carry-On and a matching black Transcend Rolling Cabin Bag!

We also have an Eagle Creek 90L Rolling Cargo Hauler Duffel for our Runner Up, and a lightweight Osprey Stuff Pack for our five Honorable Mention winners!

Click Here to Read the Rules & See
Winning Photos from Past Contests

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Our 2015 Grand Prize Winning Photo, “Sacred Color – Taos Pueblo, New Mexico”, by Eligius Wolodkewitsch of Port Townsend, Washington.

The Special Today was the Eight Piece Box

by Nancy Bestor

There are two constants in my life – music and food. Both of these things were important in my house when I was growing up, and I was fortunate to find a soul mate who believes these two things are just as crucial to being happy and healthy as I do. So when looking for a long-weekend travel destination this spring, we chose a city where food and music are at the top of the list – Austin, Texas.

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Bob’s sister and her husband joined us from Seattle, and picked us up at the airport upon our 10:00 pm arrival. From there it was straight to The Highball, a colorful cocktail bar, and in the blink of an eye we were listening to great music from Texas country singer and guitar player Dale Watson. Dale finished his set just after 11, but the night was young, and so were we. (I feel like an image should be inserted here of us driving in a convertible, with our hair flowing in the wind, but that only exists in my imagination.)

lonestarSo it was on to The Continental Club, the “granddaddy” of Austin music clubs, open since 1955, to hear some Southern Culture on the Skids. Their rockabilly-meets-country-meets-surf sounds featured songs about fried chicken, double-wide trailers, sex, banana pudding, and more. And fortunately, we had stopped at Gordough’s Food Truck for massive donuts before the show, so our appetites were sated. I chose the Miss Shortcake, with cream cheese frosting and fresh strawberries. Bob sampled the Funky Monkey, with grilled bananas, cream cheese and brown sugar, while Philip went with the Fried Clucker, a donut with a fried chicken strip and honey butter on top. You’ve got to see, and eat, these donuts to believe them.

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We rolled up to our airbnb home rental about 2am, tired, but happy. And the next day we did it all over again. We started with an early lunch at Valentina’s food truck, where we all had brisket tacos and smoked corn. Then we wandered South Congress Avenue, home of the above-mentioned Continental Club. It just so happened that this was the weekend of the Lonestar Roundup Classic Car Show, sponsored by The Kontinentals, an Austin car club, named after their honky tonk home base, the Continental Club. Although the show is officially at the Expo Center, hundreds of cars are both parked and motoring up and down the busy street of South Congress. Automobiles newer than 1963 are not allowed at the Roundup, and neither are imported vehicles. The cars were spectacular.

gitdown2We shared 2 ½ pounds of succulent beef ribs in the late afternoon at Black’s Barbecue, then headed over to Slow Poke’s Brisket Shack, home of the Git Down, a hot rod, hot barbecue and hot music event, hosted by the Model Citizens Car Club of Austin. We ambled across a dirt field to get to this outdoor venue, where light bulbs were strung from trees and buildings, chickens wandered throughout the grounds and even more classic cars were on display. It felt like I had walked onto the television set of Friday Night Lights, and I kept looking for Tami Taylor, except it was real. We ate brisket tacos, brought our own beer, and listened to music from The Derailers, the Hickoids and Bobby Mack. But our night wasn’t over yet. (Can you believe it kids? We stayed out past midnight AGAIN!)

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We soon found ourselves at another classic Austin music venue, Donn’s Depot, a bar and nightclub housed in an old Missouri-Pacific train depot. Repurposed rail cars serve as seating areas, and the women’s bathroom is a real caboose. Frank Cavitt, the Honky-Tonk Piano Man, was on the bill, and as Merle Haggard had died just a few days earlier, Frank and his band paid tribute with several of Merle’s songs, and I danced the two-step with stepped on the toes of a couple of young Texas boys. There was lots of great music played at Donn’s that night, and, like everywhere else we had been in Austin, people went out of their way to be friendly.

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We couldn’t get enough of Dale Watson, so Saturday afternoon found us at yet another Dale Watson show. Dale and his band, the Lonestars, were playing the grand opening of a Cube Smart Storage facility. We (obviously) weren’t in the market for a storage unit, but they welcomed us anyway, and we drank margaritas and ate pecan pie while Dale and the boys put on a fabulous show. Then it was back to the Continental Club for a late afternoon show by Redd Volkaert, former guitar player for Merle Haggard. And guess what? His show was outstanding.

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And the hits just kept on coming. That evening we drove about an hour out of town to Kendalia Halle, built in 1903, for a real Texas dance hall experience. Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition played western swing, and we watched dozens of couples, most quite a bit older than us, waltz and two-step as if they were floating above the floor. Bob was the only man in shorts, and when he and I got out on the dance floor, I couldn’t tell if they were looking at his bare legs or our feet because we had no idea what we were doing. The setting was again magical and movie-like. And yet, once again, it was real.

bathroomWe had one more dance hall experience on Sunday morning, the Gospel Brunch at Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas. Built in 1878, the 6,000 square foot wooden-floor dance hall has a tin roof and side flaps for open air dancing. Once a month the Hall features a “New Orleans-style Gospel Brunch with a Texas Twist.” For $30, you can eat all you like of oven roasted turkey, seasoned roast beef, polish sausage, scrambled eggs with salsa verde, buttermilk biscuits, garlic mashed potatoes, fried apples and more. The brunch is led by country performer Bret Graham and also features the Gospel Silvertones, a rockin’ gospel group. Both the music and the food were excellent.

And that one sentence really sums up our trip. Austin, Texas—where the music and the food are excellent.